In the fall of 2011, an anonymous tipster set off one of Central Florida's largest recent drug cases by reporting Kissimmee residents dealing prescription painkillers.
Months earlier, the pills had became harder to obtain when a new state law started shutting down Florida's notorious pill mills by prohibiting doctors from directly dispensing doses of oxycodone, and other pain killers.
But the tipster who called Central Florida Crimeline claimed that somehow, 33-year-old Mathew Barry, and a couple of friends had a constant supply, according to court records.
The information led to a statewide investigation crossing 18 counties that targeted a group using laptop computers and a special grade of watermarked paper to print prescriptions for the narcotics.
The forgeries were so good they duped chain pharmacies -- including Walgreens, Publix and Winn Dixie -- as well as independent shops, according to court records and the Osceola County Investigative Bureau.
"You can't just go out and buy it at Staples," OCIB Lt. Fred McCrimon said of the prescription-grade paper used by the forgers. "One other time we encountered a very small group. ... This was a lot better organized group."
OCIB's 16-month investigation identified more than 400 suspected dealers and drug runners who passed the bogus prescriptions across the state, according to McCrimon.
Barry and 35 other Osceola County residents now await trial or have pleaded guilty after being arrested last winter, according to court records. All of the cases are being handled by the state Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution.
A spokesman for state Attorney General Pam Bondi characterized the 36-defendant case as "among the larger of the cases we routinely prosecute."
The defendants range in age from 18 to 57 years old and include 20 men and 16 women. Most were initially jailed in lieu of bails set between $250,000 and $500,000. Barry, now released, had been held in lieu of $752,000 on drug trafficking charges, records show.
The identities of 379 other suspects linked to drug rings buying paper and interacting with the Osceola group have been sent to law enforcement agencies in 17 others counties for investigation and possible prosecution, according to OCIB.
Tracing the home-printed prescriptions, agents relied on Florida's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a database accessible to law enforcement that was created in the midst of the pill mill crisis.
OCIB Cpl. Michael Thompson ran Barry through the PDMP, and found that in less than one year, he had "received over 2,300 oxycodone, hydromorphone, methadone and Alprazolam pills."
All of Barry's prescriptions appeared to have been signed by four doctors, none of whom practiced in Central Florida. Wondering if other Kissimmee-St. Cloud residents had filled prescriptions from the same doctors, Thompson entered their names in the PDMP database, records show.
The database identified 35 Kissimmee-St. Cloud residents who received 17,046 painkillers and tranquilizers from the doctors who practice hours away in Brooksville, Palm Harbor and Tampa. All 35 were charged as part of the alleged drug trafficking organization.
When contacted by investigators, the doctors said they never treated any of the Osceola residents and pointed out the prescriptions carried incorrect addresses and telephone numbers, according to court records.
In fact, those phone numbers were connected to phone lines established by members of the drug ring -- in the event that pharmacies would call to confirm the bogus prescriptions.
"Thank you for calling Advanced Orthopedics and Associates," a message responded to calls, according to court records.
At other times, "Matt Barry had a cellular phone that he utilized to answer phone calls from the pharmacies to verify the prescriptions," records state.
Barry later told investigators he printed the prescription slips and was supposed to get $100 for each one. He also said fellow defendants coached him on how to answer phone calls from suspicious pharmacists.
Whenever ring members successfully filled prescriptions worth up to $4,500, they were paid in pills. The most potent drug, 30 mg. oxycodone, came in bottles with 180 doses and were sold illegally for $20 to $25 each, according to court records.
The first arrests in Kissimmee were made in October 2011 after Encore Pharmacy Discount, an independent shop, notified authorities about bogus prescriptions linked to the drug ring.
Ironically, Encore was the target of a federal drug investigation that ended in 10 arrests last month involving charges of distributing oxycodone to buyers from as far away as Massachusetts and Puerto Rico.
"OCIB has definitely seen an increase in prescription fraud case over the last two years, but numbers have begun to decline as a direct result of PDMP, public awareness and the lack of supply or availability of the prescription drugs," McCrimon wrote in an email to the Sentinel. "OCIB has seen the trend of prescription drug users to return to the traditional drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine as a result of the supply and demand."